December 21, 2009

December 21, 2009 | Commentary on Latin America

Democracy Survives in Honduras

In case you missed it, a remarkable thing happened recently in the small Central American country of Honduras. Ignoring the skeptics, Honduras held a free, fair, transparent and -- perhaps most importantly -- a peaceful election.

The voting came at a time when democracy and the rule of law are under attack in the region, so hopefully this election marked a decisive moment. It should, at least, show other neighboring countries that democracy works.

Nonetheless, a big question remains: Is this election a turning point, or an anomaly, for democracy in Latin America?

As an international observer, I saw democracy working on the ground. It's clear what direction Hondurans want their country to go. More than 500 election observers from 31 different countries were on hand. The Honduran Electoral Tribunal greeted us as we arrived, then we set to work ensuring the transparency and legitimacy of the electoral process.

Individuals had traveled as far as Japan to observe the election, which underscores the significance of the election amid a backdrop of potential violence, unrest and fraud.

By Election Day's end, the skeptics and naysayers were proven wrong. Honduras had pulled off a successful election, with more than 60 percent of eligible voters turning out to choose the country's next president. The National Party's candidate, Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, won the election, and it seemed as if most Hondurans viewed the election as an opportunity to bring much-needed peace and normalcy to their country after months of chaos and uncertainty.

The Honduran economy relies heavily on a vibrant and healthy stream of tourists flocking to its white sandy beaches off the Atlantic coast, and the divisiveness of an ousted president trying to rewrite his country's constitution clearly had negative economic repercussions. The country was eager to turn the page -- and succeeded.

Ironically, that will be Honduras' future challenge: to convince the region and the world that the democratic election wasn't a fluke, but a real defense for democracy and the rule of law.

Here's the background. Earlier this year, then-President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya attempted to undo three decades of peaceful, democratic governance. For a month before he was removed, Zelaya had been working feverishly to remain in power after his first term ended, even though the constitution strictly forbids this.

Zelaya's choice of friends was especially worrying. He cozied up to the likes of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa, while eyeing ways to expand his power even though doing so meant trampling on the country's constitution. Since Honduras is famously leery of presidents overstaying their welcome, (tyrants and the military dominated much of the 20th century) the people of Honduras were quick to detect the changing winds.

Hondurans bravely defended their democratic institutions and the eventual removal of Manuel Zelaya from office. Unfortunately, the divisive politics of anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism had already popped up, as many anti-democratic heads of state in Latin America quickly sided with Zelaya. Additionally, the Organization of American States also joined in, undermining the traditional separation of power and rule of law.

In this context, it's easy to understand why the 2009 Honduran presidential election was so important.

What the brave people of Honduras showed the world is that, despite what many may think, democracy and the rule of law are not a thing of the past in Latin America. Yes, many charismatic leaders have seized the keys to presidential palaces in Latin America. These men are eager to shut down democratic institutions and replace the free market with authoritarianism and socialism. So the Honduran elections, by highlighting a different path, offer a ray of hope for freedom everywhere.

Unfortunately, our own country has been slow to come to the aid of the Honduran people and their defense of democracy and the rule of law. Our State Department, for example, sided with Zaleya when it should have been showing him the door. Still, a new day has dawned. President Barack Obama has promised us he won't turn his back on Latin America. Now he has a chance to prove that.

The November 29 elections were only the first step to ensure that representative democracy survives in this century. As the hope of liberty for the entire world, the United States cannot turn from our friends in Honduras and Latin America during this critical juncture.

Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. and was an International Observer to the recently held elections in Honduras.

About the Author

Israel Ortega Contributor, The Foundry
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Related Issues: Latin America

First Appeared in HACER